Festival Review: A to JazZ, Sofia Bulgaria

Written by | Festivals, News, Reviews

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of visiting the Bulgarian capital Sofia to attend the A to JazZ Festival. Since it’s modest beginnings in 2011, the A to JazZ Festival has grown to become a mainstay of the cultural life of Sofia and reaches a massive 50,000+ people across the multi-day event. The festival is held in the in the picturesque South park in Sofia that during the festival is transformed into a village atmosphere with designated sections for a bars, food court, an art bazar and more.

The goal of A to JazZ is not only to present a top line music festival but also to spread and promote jazz, world and improvised music among young people. Education also plays a role and this can be seen with side programs such as A to JazZ Kids and for local artists and musicians A to JazZ Talks, more on this later.

During the festival I had the opportunity to speak with the festival director Petar Dimitrov, who explained that audience building is one of the main pillars the festival is built on and given the astonishing number of visitors of all age groups it would appear that this aspect has been a success. In addition, Petar explained that since the festival’s inception at least 6 new jazz clubs and two new festivals have been established in the city.

This year, for the first time in the A to Jazz history, the festival opened on the Thursday with an evening of showcase world-music acts. Supported by UPBEAT, the European Showcase Platform for World Music, the bands were selected from across Europe with the first 6 bands performing on the main stage and a further 3 bands performing indoor at the Toplocentrala located adjacent to the South park. Hands in Motion, a percussion ensemble from Belgium, opened the proceedings and presented a highly interesting set combining acoustic percussion instruments with electronics. Unfortunately with the starting time being 6:00pm on a Thursday, it took a while before the crowd started to build up however this didn’t diminish what was a wonderful performance. Alice in WonderBand, a Serbian duo consisting of Ana Vrbaški and Marko Dinjaški, delivered an interesting set combining body percussion, vocal effects and dance together with loops and samples. It was quite an impressive set and visually very impressive. It left me wondering what this could be with the addition of a live band.

Photos by Lubomir Vassilev

One of the highlights of the Showcase shows was the Greek group Argalios led by pianist Alexandros Iossifidis and vocalist Zoe Mantzou. The bands set was rooted in the folkloric Greek Demotiko style, yet far more contemporary in nature. It appeared that the band may have had some sound issues on stage witch led to the odd internation issue however, this didn’t affect what was overall a very engaging performance. I hope to hear a great deal more from this band. Equally impressive was the Hungarian ensemble Ephemere who presented a set of original material with the addition of a number of standards with a decidedly French flavour.

Prior to the festival there was a great deal of hype around the French/Congolese vocalist Fanie Fayar. While the band was rock solid, I was somewhat underwhelmed by her vocal performance. That said, my opinion was obviously not shared by the audience, that by this time had swelled to sea of people, who were obviously captivated and left calling for more. In my opinion, the decision to add this extra day of showcase acts was a valuable addition to the festival and I hope this becomes a regular aspect of the festival going forward.

The first day of regular programming kicked off with a project led by Petya Stancheva who presented a project with the aim to provide vocal students the opportunity to perform together with the Big Band of the Sofia Wind Orchestra. Supporting the local scene is one of the strengths of the festival programming and as I mentioned above, the festival also presented a number of panel sessions under the name A to JazZ Talks. These discussion panels and Q&A sessions were presented by a team of international professional industry delegates and dealt with a number of various industry topics aimed to support the work and development of artists including topics as “How to Showcase” and “Go to Market” as a key part of artist’s career planning and development.

Following the performance of Petya Stancheva’s project, the band EVDN lead by bass guitarist and composer Evden Dimitrov took to the stage. The set presented an interesting set of contemporary jazz compositions, written largely by the leader. Overall it was a good set with some great playing however I would have liked to have seen a little more fire and variation. Italian jazz and rock guitarist Matteo Mancuso delivered a powerhouse set of jazz/Rock rooted in the late 1970’s style. There is no doubt Mancuso has a repertoire of very impressive chops and these were on full display during the set. That said, this was not just a display of exceptional technique, Mancuso has a keen sense of musicality and presented a varied set that exuded energy from start to finish.

The headline act for the Friday was The Philadelphia-born soul vocalist Bilal who delivered a great set featuring an eclectic mix of gospel, jazz, soul, blues and hip-hop. Having previously collaborated with the likes of Dr. Dre, Jay Z, Beyonce and Erykah Badu, he probably best known for the track “These Walls” with Kendrick Lamar, that earned them a Grammy award in 2016. Featuring a modest line-up of guitar bass and drums, the band were able to create a sound far greater than you would expect from this line-up with the addition of some well placed samples and loops. I particularly enjoyed the raw edge the band brought to many of the vocalists best known songs delivering a set full of energy and class.

Photos by Lubomir Vassilev

Saturday’s performances kicked off with concerts from two Bulgarian artists, Funkilicious and R&B, Soul vocalist Krista. This was followed by a great set from alto saxophonist Nikola Bankov. Hailing from Slovakia, Bankov has been on my radar since the release of his 2022 album “Dream Chaser”. His set at the A to JazZ Festival was my first opportunity to see him live and I was certainly not disappointed, it was a great set of modern fusion inspired jazz. However, the highlight of the evening, and perhaps the entire festival, was the performance by Judith Hill who closed out the day on the main stage. Hill’s performance was captivating and the way she connected immediately with the enormous audience that had filled the park to full capacity was nothing less than amazing. From a genre perspective it’s difficult to describe Hill, the material seamlessly traversed blues, gospel, soul and jazz and consistently throughout the set she showed full command of each one of these genres. Truly an amazing set.

The final day delivered a number of surprises including a great set from Clavexperience featuring some highly creative musical gymnastics from vocalist Pavel Terziyski and Bobo & The Gang, who delivered a power set of jazz infused hip hop. Closing the festival was Lakecia Benjamin. Since the release of of her 2020 album “Pursuance” there has been no doubt that Benjamin is one of the hottest acts on the scene and reason for this was clear to see on stage in Sofia. It was a powerful performance that channeled a number of her major influences and specifically John Coltrane with an amazing version of his “A love Supreme”. I found it refreshing to see a more traditional jazz format with drummer E.J. Strickland and bassist Ivan Taylor forming a powerful backbone for Benjamin cut loose on. I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate adjective to describe this performance so I’m going to fall back on a term taken from the 1984 rockumentary “Spinal Tap’, it went to 11.

As I mentioned above, this was my first visit to Sofia and the A to Jazz Festival. On my way to the airport on the Monday morning I felt as if I had truly experienced something quite special. The atmosphere during the four days was amazing, not just at the festival itself but overall in the city. While I had no real preconceived notions, on all fronts I was surprised by the openness and friendliness of the people. The atmosphere at the festival itself was amazing and to be honest, I’ve not seen that many people in one place, at one time, during a jazz festival for a long time. In fact I mentioned to festival director Petar Dimitrov that this felt more like Glastonbury than a jazz festival. The programming was adventurous and right on mark with something for everyone and the village in the park concept worked extremely well adding to the relaxed atmosphere.

My recommendation would be to to lock in the weekend of the 4th to the 7th July 2024 for a trip to Sofia and the A to Jazz Festival.

Last modified: July 28, 2023